Monday, April 27, 2015

'Opposition-mukt Bharat' is a dangerous thesis; Is Yechury up to the task of defeating it?


Outside of religious faith lines, can the dead be brought to life again? The principal communist grouping in India, the CPI-M, was so systematically destroyed during the Prakash Karat years that it would be difficult to imagine it becoming relevant in Indian politics again. In the larger view of things, this is unfortunate because a country as diverse as India must have a left-right-centre party architecture for democracy to be meaningful. The BJP's proclaimed policy of a Congress-mukt Bharat visualises the very opposite. With the Left in limbo and the Janata Parivar being a party of yesterday's rejects, the Congress, however visionless, remains the main face of opposition. Congress-mukt therefore means an opposition-mukt Bharat which will also mean a democracy-mukt Bharat. That may suit the BJP, but not the people of India.

It is against this background that the change of guard in the CPI-M assumes some significance. If the party hierarchy had anyone more uninspiring than Prakash Karat, it was the man he preferred as successor, S. Ramachandran Pillai. Fortunately for the party, most other seniors showed better sense and Sitaram Yechury became the new leader. The dramatic nature of the change can be seen even at the surface level. Karat is seldom caught smiling. Yechury has a gentle smile permanently etched into his facial muscles. Karat is naturally distant, Yechury is spontaneously friendly.

As it happens, the surface features are a reflection of what lies within. Yechury is the ultimate networker -- and networkers have often been powerbrokers and kingmakers, irrespective of their party colours. Just as Pramod Mahajan's reach extended beyond the BJP and Murli Deora's beyond the Congress, Yechury's friendships cut across party lines. He is known to have good personal relations with Sonia Gandhi and with several of the younger members of the BJP and of the Janata groups. The moderated non-partisan language in which he speaks and his smiling, tolerant ways win friends easily. If Harkishan Singh Surjeet was the CPI-M's most successful general secretary because of his bridge-building abilities, Yechury is poised to be the next Surjeet.

But there were important political differences between them. When the Janata leaders invited Jyoti Basu to be the prime minister in 1996, Surjeet was in favour of accepting the offer. Yechury was with the majority of party bigwigs who rejected the offer in what Jyoti Basu called a historical blunder. On the issue of CPI-M and the CPI re-uniting, Surjeet was an obstacle whereas one of the first statements Yechury made upon his election to the top post was in favour of the communist parties coming together again.

This issue could well be the key to the Left finding a place again in India's convoluted politics. Both Bengal and Kerala have proved that the days the CPI-M could lord it over others are over. In local elections in Bengal, the party failed repeatedly to gain a foothold because it had nothing to offer, nothing to sustain the morale of the rank and file. Surveys now show that it's the BJP that would give a good fight to the Trinamool in the next election.

The party's position in Kerala is worse image-wise, although it is as prominent as the Congress in the politics of the state. Public opinion turned against it when political murders took place in the state and people linked them with the party's hard line. Leaders who disagreed with the state secretary of the party were removed unceremoniously. In some towns dissident party cadres formed rival parties. Allies who had been with the CPI-M for long under the banner of the Left Democratic Front felt slighted by the secretary and parted company. The CPI-M was reduced to a coterie party widely distrusted by the people. Prakash Karat had blindly supported this unpopular and autocratic clique in the state for unknown reasons. His departure, therefore, is seen in Kerala as an opportunity to regain the party's lost credibility.

That of course will depend on the new general secretary. With Karat's dogma giving way to Yechury's pragmatism, it should be possible for Left groups to come together without feeling terrorised by a Big Brother. India has changed and the Left, if it wants to be relevant, must change, too. It must change not only its oldworld communist terminology but also in policy positions so as to address the concerns of an aspiring generation. If Yechury does this, India will move towards the three-pronged architecture our democracy needs. The good thing is that he can -- unlike Karat.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Bose aircrash was faked. Was he shot in Siberia? Was he the Baba in UP? The mystery must end

Spying, the very idea, has a bad aura about it. To that extent the declassified information that Jawaharlal Nehru spied on Subhas Chandra Bose and his family makes Nehru look bad. Unexpectedly Bhagat Singh's family has pitched in with the allegation that Nehru's government was spying on them too, planting intelligence agents inside the family in the guise of domestic servants and research scholars. All of this may be true because it's a familiar game governments play. Some day secret files may reveal how the BJP Government kept track of Rahul Gandhi's secret meditations.

The Bose files, however, raise issues that are more important than the petty games of politicians. Seventy years and many inquiry commissions later, the disappearance of India's celebrated Netaji remains a mystery. A mystery, that is, to the public. To the government of India, and perhaps of the UK, US and Russia as well, information necessary to close the case must be available. No purpose is served by keeping such information secret any longer. Therefore the demand that all the old files must now be declassified has the backing not only of sentiment but also of logic.

Nehru had his reasons to be less than friendly towards Subhas Bose. Throughout the saga of the freedom movement and in the entire pantheon of the Indian National Congress, no one came near Nehru in mass popularity -- no one except Subhas Bose. Such was Bose's appeal to the hearts and minds of people that he was elected Congress President over the objection of Mahatma Gandhi himself. After Bose's dramatic escape from India, his popularity reached dizzying heights. If the heroic Netaji were to return to India after the war, Nehru would not have been the unrivalled prime minister of India. (With a revived INA and Subhas Bose in military uniform, the might-have-beens of history defy imagination).

For Nehru, therefore, it was natural and necessary to believe that Bose died in an air crash in June 1945 as the Japanese authorities announced. It is interesting that India's Viceroy Archibald Wavell dismissed the Japanese radio report. "I suspect it very much", he noted in his diary and asked his principal aide to start preparing for the trial of Subhas Bose and his associates as war criminals. Four months later, in October 1945, the colonial Government's Intelligence Bureau submitted a report which said: "The general opinion among Indians here (in Bangkok) is that Bose is not dead but.... has made his way to some place occupied by the Russians". Following such reports, two theories were accepted as facts: That the Japanese conspired with Bose to fake the aircrash-death so that the British would not capture him and put him on trial, and that Bose worked in the prison camps of Stalin's Siberia.

Was he executed on Stalin's orders as various reports suggested? The promised release of Soviet-era secret files by Ukraine may finally settle that question. Till then we cannot ignore an avalanche of circumstantial evidence pointing to the mysterious Gumnami Baba who lived in Lucknow and Faizabad for some 30 years being in fact Netaji. An impressive collection of reports holding up this theory was assembled in the 2010 book mentioned in this column a couple of years ago -- Judgment: No Aircrash, No Dealth by Lt. Manwati Arya, an officer in Netaji's famous Rani Jhansi Regiment. According to these reports, Gumnami Baba entered India through China in 1953, lived in secluded houses, never appeared before anyone and handled things with gloves on so as not to leave fingerprints behind.

The belongings of the Baba, kept in 28 boxes, were unlocked in 2001, 15 years after his death. They included newspapers in English, Hindi and Bengali and an eclectic book collection -- complete works of Tagore, Sarat Chandra, Shakespeare and Dickens; Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, Tropic of Cancer, Rubaiyat, Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. And latterday political books including Maxwell's India's China War and Dalvi's Himalayan Blunder -- not exactly the usual reading material of sadhus.

According to newspaper reports the governments of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi knew about the Baba, ensured that his privacy was guarded and even bore some of his expenses. Keeping his secret was a wise decision, on the part of Netaji as well as the Government; we can well imagine the mayhem if he had publicly surfaced. Now that it is all part of history, why can't the records be fully declassified and the mystery ended once and for all?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

5-Star activism, too, is democracy. If we deny it, we may be in for a new totalitarianism



Forget the beef ban and the Good Friday controversy in the Supreme Court. More important is the fact that we seem to have reached a stage where we cannot debate issues like water and air pollution, forests and wild life, the death of rivers and the enormity of pesticide abuse that is killing citizens in tens of thousands. We cannot discuss them because discussion means criticism as well -- and we have a new India where criticism is considered "anti-development".

Which Indian in his senses would want to be anti-development? The question therefore is about the nature of development and what we mean by that term. Is it development to cut down mountain ranges in the Western Ghats for putting up industrial plants? Is it development to take tribal lands away without giving the tribals either a say in the matter or meaningful rehabilitation plans? Is it development to have in India 13 of the world's most polluted 20 cities with New Delhi ranking as the most polluted city in the world (WHO report, 2014)? Is it anti-development to raise such issues, engage in debate, even criticise official policies?

There are frauds in this field. There are also many dedicated organisations doing good work, especially on issues related to development without destruction. The Development Alternatives Group, the India Development Alternatives Foundation, Environment Support Group and the Centre for Development Alternatives are examples of organisations engaged in the vital task of discussing and researching different types of development paradigms. There are other organisations such as Greenpeace that campaign aggressively for environment protection. Their activism does not mean that they are a danger to India; they are a warning to those whose blinkered view of development is a danger to India.

Actually, the kind of development-for-the-sake-of-development philosophy adopted by the Narendra Modi Government has attracted criticism from within the Sangh Parivar itself. No one will question either the integrity or the nationalistic credentials of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. What makes it different from other Parivar followers is its intellectual honesty. It has openly questioned the Modi Government's position on foreign investment, especially in e-commerce, insurance and defence. It criticised the Modi-Jaitley budget as "pro-corporate" and the Government's "hazardous flirtation with US" on subjects such as intellectual property rights. Certainly the Prime Minister would not dare include the Jagran Manch in his list of "five-star activists?" There are large segments of independent citizens who agree with the Jagran Manch's views even when they have no truck with the Parivar line of thinking. They are not "five-star liberals" or "pseudo-seculars"; they are just Indians who care for India.

In our system, unfortunately, the value of opposition is diminished because opposition parties oppose for the sake of opposing; the BJP did the same when not in power. But there are legitimate organisations, groups and individuals who criticise one government policy or another out of conviction and concern for the country. Maligning them would be a sign of intolerance at worst, of confusion at best. Our Government seems to have developed some sort of difficulty in separating what is good for all from what is good for a few. Perhaps this is related to its apparent inability to distinguish between rhetoric and governance, between election campaign mode and performance mode. So it ends up doing things it should not be doing, like robbing the Peter of agricultural India to pay the Paul of industrial India. Farmers greet this policy the only way they know -- by committing suicide. Even then, the foreign investor, earnestly wooed to make in India, is in no hurry. Something is amiss.

We have only two alternatives. Either listen to the advice of our ancient rishis or succumb to the warning of modern rishis. The first course was spelt out in Arthashastra which specified punishments for those who destroyed nature: "For cutting the tender sprouts of fruit trees and shade trees, a fine of six panas. For cutting the minor branches of the same trees, 12 panas, and for cutting the big branches, 24 panas".

If we fail to heed that advice, what awaits us is what a modern rishi, Aldous Huxley, predicted in his Brave New World as far back as 1958. "By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms -- elections, parliaments, supreme courts and all the rest will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism".

Let no one say we had no choice.



Monday, April 6, 2015

Is India a plaything for Rahul? BJP gets lucky with Congress, Left and Janata helping it


The BJP held its National Executive Committee meeting in Bangalore on a grand scale. The main topic of discussion was how to strengthen the party. Actually, there was no need for such elaborate strategising. For the Congress, the Left and the Janata parivar will together ensure that Modi-BJP remains on top for the foreseable future. The nakshatras above and the challengers below are so aligned that even the excesses of the fanatic fringe will not shame the ruling group. The BJP's greatest asset is the opposition.

A cursory glance is enough to see how bereft of ideas as well as leadership are the opposition groups. Let's leave out the Left. Prakash Karat has successfully made it irrelevant. With nil field experience, he could not come up with a single initiative to exploit Mamata Bannerji's dip in popularity because of her eccentricities. In Kerala he sided with the dictatorial and tainted wing of the party, alienating significant sections within the party and sympathisers outside. The Karat years have been so negative that it will be virtually impossible for a new generation of young leaders to make the red flag flutter again.

The Congress has not collapsed irretrievably, but it is in the grip of an embrace that has the potential to strangle it. Consider Dhritarashtra who possessed the strength of one lakh elephants due to the boon granted by Vyasa. Thanks to Krishna's timely intervention, Bhima stepped aside and pushed an iron figure of himself into the blind king's enveloping arms. It was crushed into powder. With no protector around, the Congress got caught in the embrace of the Gandhis. Indira and Rajiv made the grip firm. With Rahul Gandhi reducing politics itself to a farce, the prospect of the party getting crushed into powder has become real.

And what a farce. Here is a man who made it clear to all that he was not interested in politics, that he just didn't have it in him. He went on to prove it -- making mistake after mistake, embarrassing friend and foe with faux pas, even compromising the venerable Manmohan Singh who was bearing the cross for his family.

The unforgivable sin was his playing hide and seek with India as though this great country was a plaything for him to toy with. Too often he just vanished, like a Houdini in Gandhi cap, and returned as he pleased, when he pleased. This time the joke has gone too far. It is not just his long absence; it's the secrecy that makes it unacceptable. Party spokesmen say he is reflecting; mother says he will be back soon. Why this tamasha? What is he hiding from? The Congress's insistence on concealing his whereabouts is arrogant and insulting to India. After this irresponsible disappearance, Rahul Gandhi should be declared unfit to rule the Congress. Of course he has the strength of at least ten elephants due to the boon granted by Indira Gandhi. With this he will crush the party into powder unless a Krishna appears to save it.

The miserable plight of the Congress is the inspiration behind a collection of Janata parties joining hands to form a credible opposition. No bookie will take bets on this venture, for it is doomed before it is born. We only have to look at the leaders of the six parties to see how the very idea of their wanting to rule India is an affront to India. The new party is to be headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav, patriarch of the Samajwadi Party which has a sordid track record in UP. Its current run is marked by an unprecedented breakdown in law and order. Even ministers have been caught in murder cases.

And who are the other five? Janata Dal United, its leader Sharad Yadav frequently airing antediluvian views on women and their rights; Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by the irrepressible Lalu Prasad whose latest asset is a daughter given to imagining herself as a lecturer at Harvard University; Indian National Lok Dal with patriarch Om Prakash Chautala, alas, in jail; Janata Dal (Secular) under Deve Gowda who, when not forgotten, is a liability even in Karnataka; and Samajwadi Janata Party which actually died with its sole MP, Chandra Sekhar, but they now want us to believe that it is not dead.

How can a bunch of losers, all past their expiry dates, even think of ruling a country like India with a young and aspiring population? The nakshatras are smiling at the BJP.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lee deserved all the praise he got. But his idea of prosperity without freedom can never win


The way the world reacted to Lee Kuan Yew's passing was a measure of the greatness he had achieved as Prime Minister of Singapore. His lifelong disappointment was that he did not have a country big enough to match his vision. He made up by turning Singapore into a world showpiece, marked by efficiency, beauty, cleanliness and absence of perceptible corruption. In his later years he also achieved the status of a philosopher-king whose views were sought by other countries including China. He was an honoured speaker at America's think-tanks.

India's own admiration for Lee Kuan Yew was always out in the open, clinched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to attend the funeral. Many of our leaders extended a different kind of compliment when they boasted that they would turn this city or that into another Singapore. A momentary political point scored with that bunkum, they went back to the shenanigans that have turned our cities into nightmares.

Occasional shenanigans are unavoidable in running a country in today's world. Lee had had his share. The defining question in all such cases is: Are they aimed at enriching oneself or at achieving national goals. The world evidently judged that Lee's intentions were honourable, hence the graciousness of the accolades showered on him. The New York Times report referred to the International Herald Tribune apologising when libel suits were filed by Lee. But it was too polite to mention its own cancellation of a lunch invitation to Lee in New York in protest against its correspondent being rudely thrown out of Singapore.

Lee's libel suits were numerous and famous. He did not lose one of them. He literally turned prosecution into persecution when lawyer J. B. Jeyaretnam won a seat in Parliament on an opposition ticket which Lee considered an unpardonable offence. He punished the constituency that voted for the oppositionist. Then he chased the MP relentlessly until court orders disqualified him from functioning as a lawyer or as an MP and declared him legally bankrupt. The Economist's obituary in 2008 referred to a party organised by its correspondent in Singapore. The moment Jeyaretnam entered, most of the guests withdrew into corners to avoid being seen with a man the Prime Minister disliked.

Significantly, the reportage following Lee's death described him repeatedly as the founding father of Singapore. Actually there were four co-equal co-founders. Two of them could be said to have made contributions more solid than Lee's to the transformation of Singapore. Goh Keng Swee was responsible for the economic miracle in Singapore while Toh Chin Chye was the no-nonsense builder of the People's Action Party, keeping it strong and safe for Lee. S. Rajaratnam provided ideological ballast to Lee and, as Foreign Minister, gave wing to Singapore's gospel.

But three of the four founding fathers went off the radar towards the end of the 20th century. Some foundations and university chairs were named after them, otherwise memories of them were allowed to lapse. One reason was that health failed them sooner. Suggestive of an agreement that they would only die as nonagenarians, Rajaratnam moved on in 2006 aged 90, Goh in 2010 aged 92, Toh in 2012 aged 90 and now Lee aged 91. Lee, enjoying relatively better health and intellectually sharper, emerged more equal than the others, enabling him to arrange "leadership transition" the way he wanted.

Lee was prime minister till 1990. That year, with the other founders virtually invisible, he handed over prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong while remaining in the cabinet as senior minister. In 2004 Goh withdrew and the prime ministership passed to Lee Hsien Loong, with Lee remaining in the cabinet as minister mentor. Chok Tong and Hsien Loong were by no means the brightest men in the party or government.But Hsien Loong was Lee's son. The leadership transition was so neatly executed that there were articles in the Herald Tribune under headings like "All in the family" and "Dynastic politics in East Asia". Anxious to ensure continued circulation in Singapore, the H-T apologised, paid substantial fines to settle the libel case, and agreed that only merit mattered in leadership choices.

All very neat. But it's a new Singapore now, with new ideas, new ambitions. The new generation wants prosperity with freedom. In the general election in 2011 good old Jeyaretnam's Workers' Party scored unprecedented success. Son Lee's Singapore is already different from Father Lee's. An old maxim is filling the air again: Arbitrary power does not last, only people's power does.